My Escape…

The last twelve hours have been a whirlwind of activity.  Freeing captivity is an amazing feeling.  Days of being sick to my stomach from absolute desperation about my situation came to an apex this afternoon. This morning I packed my things and snuck out the door of the flat while Sameh slept.  My first time to step outside alone in the eleven days of being in Egypt.  Only the second time to stand outside in the daylight.  I knew the next few hours would be very stressful, but it was time to free myself from being held against my will in a rundown ghetto flat on the outskirts of Alexandria.

I walked out the front gate of the apartment building into such wonderful sunshine.  I had such determination and also butterflies in my stomach, afraid of the moment that I would be caught and a confrontation would occur.  But there was no turning back, I was dying inside.  Someone who I thought was a good friend was leaching my money and ripping me off left and right.  He is a professional abuser, and is very skilled at turning anything back on the victim and making them feel guilty and back down.  Mind games and knowledge of his city, culture and language were his weapons.  Daily he told stories of his past how he abused women and made money from ripping off foreigners.  He lied daily, and basically told me everything that he was doing and what I could expect of Egyptians through his stories of his past.  Enough had been revealed to let me know exactly how I could leave and what kind of help I could expect.  But what did happen, was nothing I ever dreamt of.  A mere eleven hours ago I purchased a ticket to flee the country and return home.  Now I am considering staying.

Sometimes when there are too many coincidences, things start looking like destiny.  And when destiny knocks at your door, you have to stand still, listen, watch and think.  The world is definitely a small place.  We are all connected to each other.  Love and kindness are truly the most important things in this world.  Today I was so blessed to have so many strangers come to my aide.  My rescuer drove two hours in horrible traffic after a night of no sleep.  To come rescue me, a complete stranger.  This all because an old friend he met through AFS, who he hadn’t seen in years messaged him on Facebook, from another country.  My exchange brother Mohammed happened to be that man who sent out the initial message.  So I sat in that café waiting for Hassan, a complete stranger, to come help me.

For a brief second I was worried about trusting someone again, since a friend had abused me.  But any friend of my brother’s, and a fellow AFS student was a hundred times better that returning to Sameh.  So I sat there trying breathing exercises, drinking hot tea, singing along to Adele, watching Jumanji and briefly chatting with friends on Facebook.  Anything to keep my mind off of the ensuing final encounter with Sameh.  I sat in that café for nearly five hours, not wanting to return to the flat.  I was a nervous wreck, absolutely soaked in stress sweat, with cold clammy palms and a knot in my stomach the size of a chicken that finally relaxed a few hours ago for the first time in over a week.  I feel as if a huge boulder has been taken off of me and I can breathe and relax again.

The previous night I racked my brain and thought about how I could escape without endangering myself.  I decided to lie to Sameh. Hoping that he would take pity on me and let me go. That night when I tried to go out to a café to use their Wifi, he refused to let me go, stating that it was dangerous.  He told me that he was glad that a few nights ago I saw just how rude and dangerous Egyptians could be, and that I should not go out on my own.  I shouted back to him that, why did I care?  I was dying anyways and this was my final trip around the world to say my goodbyes.  He paused and asked why I hadn’t told him earlier.  I replied that I didn’t want to be treated differently and just wanted one last hoorah.  With tears in my eyes, and a choked up voice, I told him that he was the first person I told.  I told him that I received the news the night before I messaged him back in February to see if I could visit him.  I was very convincing, and hated telling lies, but it was me or him.  Sometimes you have to do things you are not proud of in order to survive.  I told him that it was time for me to leave Egypt and continue my journey.  He then promised that he would take me out to see the sights tomorrow morning and would do what he could for me to enjoy the rest of my stay.  I went to bed early and awoke at 9am and packed all of my things while he was still sleeping.  He was still sleeping and by 11:45 I decided to leave the flat and go to the Café down the block to use the internet.  Unfortunately, in order to close the front door it has to be slammed shut.  So within about five minutes of sitting in the café, Sameh found me, looking disheveled and still half asleep.  He asked what I was doing, and I told him I was purchasing tickets to go to North Carolina to visit my brother Gabe and his family.  He slammed shut my laptop and told me to go back to the apartment with him.  I reopened it and continued searching, he tried to close it again.  He said he wanted to talk to me, but not in public, and wanted me to come back with him.  I told him I would not return to the flat with him and that he could talk to me here.  He then started to try and pull me out of my chair by my arm, and I told him very loudly not to let go of me.  He finally sat down and ordered a tea, I closed my laptop and gave him my full attention.  He proceeded to tell me the following story:

There was a man who was diagnosed with severe heart problems and was scheduled to have a quadruple bypass, but most likely would die.  The day before surgery he went to his local café next to a butcher shop.  He witnessed a poor woman try to purchase some scraps for her family, but did not have enough money.  The butcher refused to give her the meat on good faith.  The sick man saw this and decided to pay for her meat.  Not only for the day, but for rest of the year.  He gave the butcher money to cover the family’s needs and went on with his day.  The next day when he went into surgery, the doctors were shocked to discover that he didn’t need surgery after all and was miraculously healed.  The moral being: that miracles do happen when you empty your pockets for others in need.

I had to laugh at this, being that I continuously give to others, never knowing when I might get my next paycheck or a job.  While Sameh on the other hand admitted many times that he never gave money to beggars, didn’t volunteer, or really help humanity in any way.  I am a full believer in karma and knew where he was going with this.  He was trying to convince me to give him even more money in hopes of getting healed.  I told him, sorry but I needed to leave.  So I opened up my computer again and he tried to pull me up out of my seat again.  This time I yelled at him to keep his hands off of me and looked to the waiter, and got his attention.  Sameh seeing that I finally grew some balls told me that I had to stay another two weeks, and that he would show me the sites and that I would have fun.  I replied that it was done, and he could not force me to have fun!  One last try to get me to leave, and I told him I didn’t want to get the police or Embassy involved but would if needed.  With that he went to the waiter, paid the bill, spoke a few minutes to him and left.

I sat there for a few minutes and asked for another tea from the waiter.  He asked if I was okay, seeing the obvious distress upon my face.  I told him No, I needed help and that the man just here was a bad man.  He asked “your husband?” and I replied sharply that he was not my husband.  With that, the waiter looked very concerned.  I told him how he was taking money from me, and keeping me in the flat and that I just wanted to go back to America.  He apologized and said that it happens often in Egypt, that I can’t trust people.  After a bit I purchased tickets to North Carolina for the next day and decided to contact a few friends in Europe and Saudi who I was hoping to visit while on that side of the world.  After telling my exchange brother Mohammed that I wouldn’t make it to visit him, I told him how horrible it was for me in Alexandria.  Within minutes he sent out an S.O.S. message to a couple AFS volunteers in Alex.  One of his friends answered his message and said he would come help me.  I asked the waiter if I could use his phone and to please give directions to the man who was coming to pick me up. Since I still had no idea where in Alexandria I was.

The next four hours I sat in the café, sweating up a storm and trying to pass the time until my rescuer, Hassan arrived.  Mohammed kept checking in with me and Sameh came back to the café after a couple hours.  Sameh walked in and asked what I was doing.  I told him that I purchased tickets to leave and was waiting for someone to pick me up.  He said that I still owed him about a hundred dollars, and I replied that I would give it to him when I get my stuff.  It was worth it just for this nightmare to be over, and to get all my belongings back.  About an hour later, an old Land Rover pulled up and parked outside the shop and out stepped a young man with a buzz cut and goatee wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt.  He briefly spoke to the waiter, and approached me.  He introduced himself and sat down with me.  We had coffee as he asked me to explain my situation and what steps that we would take next.

 

Mohammed and Hassan did not want me to walk back inside that apartment, and we had no idea if Sameh was alone or had called anyone over.  Hassan said that I should not pay Sameh any additional money because he had taken so much already.  All I knew was that if we didn’t try to get my belongings, he would get close to $2,000 worth of clothes, shoes and jewelry plus a hundred dollar bill I stashed.  So, I was willing to give him the hundred in exchange for everything else.  The problem was how to approach this.  It could potentially be a dangerous situation.  Hassan was prepared to go to the police station to ask for help, but it would cost about 200 pounds for each officer to come help back him up.  We moved to the front of the café and asked a few of the locals where the nearest police station was, and I tried to explain where our apartment was.  Eventually there was about ten men crowded around us, asking questions of our situation and many said that they would help.  Hassan asked what they wanted in exchange (since usually everybody wants something here) for their help.  They said nothing, but felt honor bound to help me after hearing about my experience.  Hassan wanted to keep me safe and out of harm’s way, but still needed help finding the apartment, so I agreed to ride in the car with him and two men who volunteered.  I directed him to the apartment and they disappeared inside.  I sat in the hot car, with the doors locked, prying my neck every couple minutes to try and see something.  After about fifteen minutes the three guys came down the stairs with my bags and put them in the car.  I checked and luckily had all my belongings, minus my towel and sponge that were on the laundry line.

Sameh came down to the car with such a look of hate and was still pleading with the guys.  He said to me “Really? This is how it ends?  You still owe me money.”  I told him I owed him nothing and not another word.  The men then got in the car and we returned to the Café, where they exchanged numbers and names and then Hassan and I were off to his mother’s apartment.  I texted Mohammed to let him know that we were safe and on the way.  During the two hour drive I asked Hassan what went down in the apartment and what Sameh said.  He said that the guys basically pounded down the door, and busted in there once Sameh opened it and made him sit down on the couch.  Sameh took the defensive immediately and told them that I was messed up in the brain, not all there.  They weren’t buying that, and ultimately he didn’t know how much they knew or who they were.  He then said, I was just throwing a fit and wanted to leave because I wanted to have sex with him but he kept refusing.  Then, finally he said, but she is dying, and I just found out.  They asked him about the rent for the flat, and he said it was his sister’s place, and swore he wasn’t ripping me off.  They then replied that his sister was ripping him off if that was the case, because these apartments were only worth $50 a month and he had taken $300 already, which just covered two weeks according to Sameh.

Hassan and I arrived to his mother’s flat with a nice hot meal waiting for us.  After three days of eating only bread and cheese, and nothing but tea today, I devoured the delicious food.  Upon entering the flat, Hassan’s girlfriend had called and asked him if he just rescued a woman.  It ends up that his girlfriend works in New York and her co-worker is my mom’s friend.  My mom had called him and filled him in on the situation, while Hassan’s girlfriend heard all about it.  So it was quite a surprise that she knew all about the situation before he even had a chance to tell her about it. The world is truly a small place.

 

 

Red Flags

Taking control of your destiny can be difficult at times.  As I sit in the back of a coffee shop, waiting for an absolute stranger to come to my rescue, my hands are clammy and I can smell my acrid sweat caused from extreme stress.  After nearly two weeks of being a captive to someone who I had considered a good friend, I finally snuck out of the flat while he was sleeping.  I went down to an internet café a block away to get online and purchase my airline tickets away from Egypt.  Two weeks in the ghettos of Alexandria and the only things I have seen are three coffee shops, one clothing store and three apartments.  Ancient Egypt has been a love of mine since I was five years old.  This trip was supposed to be a great adventure.  Instead I have been nauseous every day and have been lucky to visit friends or family of Sameh every few days.

Fighting for your freedom and rights as a woman, American and human can make you take a whole different look on life.  What is important?  Family.  Absolutely, no doubt about it.  My family and thinking of returning to them is getting me through this.  Friends.  People who are there for you and accept you as you are.  Home.  America, for all its downfalls is an amazing place to be raised.  Now, more than ever I am thankful for my freedom and being an equal to men.  The tactics that have been used on me to keep me under Sameh’s thumb have been used for eons on women.  Never again will I stand to be belittled, and scared.

Every day he would blame me for things, degrade me and play mind games.  I have never been insulted and made to feel badly about the person I am, both physically and within. (Except for junior high, when I was bullied.) By keeping me from having a phone or internet I had no other way to get information but from him. Anytime I told him something that I had learned from others or online, he told me I was wrong, and things didn’t work that way.  He told me how he thought that I had given up on life, finding a husband and having children.  Daily he tried to pressure me into marrying him telling me that it is important to have children so I can be taken care of while I age and die.

The truth is, I think that he is dying.  He is just a shadow of the man that he used to be.  He is now skinny and weak with sunken cheeks, bad teeth covered by veneers and circles under his eyes.  He admitted that since the revolution he has been hooked on some kind of pain pill which makes him loose his appetite.  So he spends almost every day sleeping, and only goes out at night, rarely at that. His nephew calls him batman, because he has not seen him in daylight for years.  He usually stays inside his bedroom drinking sweet tea, smoking cigarettes and hash, popping pills, watching TV and surfing the web.   He eats a little food every couple days. He is so weak that he has to take a microbus instead of walking for ten minutes.  It is so sad what addictions can do to a person.

Many times he told me that he is not ripping me off, and that I complain about the money I give him too much.  The funny thing is, that I have not brought up the subject of money since my third day here or how I know he charged me way too much for the flat.  He told me of his plans to buy new bedroom furniture, and possibly open a store.  For someone who is unemployed and has no money, that is a tall order.  Hmmm… I wonder where he is getting that money from. Lol.  I am keeping my complaints to myself because I do not like being yelled at or arguing with others.  Being raised as a pacifist sometimes has its disadvantages. I actually thought of how my sister Cassie would handle this situation, and knew that she would have gone off on him, and would have her way.  I wished for some of her strength numerous times.

The first red flag that I got from Sameh was our living situation.  Before leaving the US, I looked on Airbnb for flats to rent.  They ranged from $10 to $30 a day.  The $30 options were luxurious flats and in nice areas. I definitely didn’t need that, and opted for a modest flat.  He told me that he could save me money and have a friend look into finding us an apartment.  I agreed with him and asked him to send me pictures and the address a few times before I left.  He failed to send me either.  So upon arrival I still had no idea where I was staying and gave immigration his home address.

While driving from the airport at 3:30 in the morning his phone kept ringing.  He said it was the landlord wondering when we would get to the flat.  We arrived a bit before 5am and his sister and nieces were at the flat instead of a landlord.  He told me that they had cleaned the flat for us.  I was confused why his family would clean the flat for us, and not the landlord.  It was disgusting, and I was afraid to use the kitchen. The walls were falling apart, some of the furniture was broken, the toilet ran and wouldn’t flush and the hot water heater was broken.  I had just travelled 36 hours and couldn’t bathe or even poop!  Luckily the toilet got fixed the next day, but the water heater wasn’t fixed for two days, so I sponge bathed.

With time, the truth came out.  The apartment was his sister’s beach flat.  A Syrian refugee family had lived there the previous eight months.  Sameh’s mom told him to ask his sister if we could stay at the flat, yet he didn’t want to burden her by asking such a favor.  He told me the price for the flat was 300 Egyptian pounds a night.  I balked at that figure, knowing that I saw places online that were luxurious at that price (roughly $30usd).  I told him I could not afford that.  He said he bargained with his family and they agreed to 250 pounds a night. I told him this was still too expensive and that I wanted to find my own place online.  He proceeded to tell me, that the website and those prices were a bunch of B.S. and that I shouldn’t trust things online.  I told him Airbnb was a reputable Portland based business and the flats I had seen had reviews.  He had heard enough, and then started giving me a guilt trip on how his family needs the money for numerous reasons and that I was getting a great price.

Originally when I asked to visit him, he said we would rent a flat together.  But upon arrival it was all up to me, and I didn’t even have a choice of accommodations.  Even with the discounted price, the flat was about $750 a month.  This flat would be a max of $350 a month where I come from, and this is Egypt where things are cheap!  I knew I was getting fleeced and felt absolutely horrible for it.  It turns out that the average rent for such a flat in that neighborhood was only $50 a month.  This is what the locals who helped rescue me told me.  Which is one of the reasons they helped.  They were outraged to hear how he swindled me and kept me in the apartment. The thing about liars is that they can’t keep their stories straight and time gives them away.

The second huge red flag that appeared is when Sameh drugged me.  A few nights ago Sameh announced that he needed to go run some errands and would be gone for about two hours.  After eating our lunch at 8:30pm he asked if I wanted some tea.  Which was a bit unusual since by this time he no longer made me tea.  But I accepted and he made me a cup of a new type that he purchased the previous day.  I thought that it tasted weird, but being that it was new I had no comparison.  He left around ten and told me not to bolt the door behind him because he thought I would be asleep when he returned and he didn’t want to disturb me. By the time he left I was yawning and shortly thereafter had passed out about eight hours before my normal bedtime.  I was startled awake two hours later by some teenagers fighting outside my flat.  I stayed awake until his return five hours later!  He was very surprised to see me awake when he walked in the door.  The next morning I made myself a cup of my new tea and it tasted very different from the cup he made me.  I then realized without a doubt that he had slipped me a sleeping pill, which explained why he didn’t want me to bolt the door.  Yet every other time he left the flat he insisted upon it.   I did not ever mention to him that I knew he drugged me.  I was a bit scared for my safety and furious that someone would do that, just so he could spend more time out of the apartment without me getting mad.

Two nights earlier he also left, stating he would be just two hours.  After about four hours I started drinking my vodka that I got in the duty free shop in Turkey.  I had called him numerous times with his spare phone he left me, and he didn’t answer. I got a little tipsy, and ended up tripping over a rug landing on my knee, but somehow hit my arm which got a nasty knot and bruise for the next eight days.   His sister came over around midnight and took me to her flat until Sameh came at 3:30am.  We sat in the sitting room/bedroom of her two youngest girls.  As they slept in the bed before us, the lights were on, the tv was loud and their father was smoking cigarettes and drinking tea.  To say the least, I felt awkward watching these girls sleep.  Once Sameh returned I gave him the cold shoulder.  I did not come all this way to sleep during the day and stay in an apartment all night.  I was starting to get the picture and was pissed.  I was being used…

 

The Woes of Women

I can confirm without any doubt that I am a feminist and am a strong and proud independent woman.  I am now more thankful than ever for my upbringing and being raised without any shame or feeling any different from the men in my life. Growing up in America definitely gave me an advantage that millions of women have only dreamt about.  For years I have been interested in women in the Middle East and their lives, especially with the entrance of the Taliban and previously liberated women forced into a life of servitude.  No longer able to work, go to school, drive, or walk freely in the streets.  Instead they became covered in burkas and always escorted by male family members.  To me, this would have been one of my worst nightmares, to have everything in your life taken away and to be totally dependent on men.  Luckily my father and brothers are wonderful, but not all women are so lucky.

Women throughout the world are property of men.  From a young age they are forced into servitude for their fathers, uncles, and brothers.  Big brother just has to wake up from sleep and yell for a cup of tea from his bed, and the girls go scurrying to take care of their “Prince”.   To be the only boy in a family of girls makes you very special, especially if you are the oldest boy of the whole extended family.  Growing up in charge of every younger cousin keeps you elevated and respected in later years, even if no respect is deserved.  One’s title is what matters, not one’s actions, past or present.  Obviously I am writing this with a biased mind.  This is because I found myself to be a woman scorned today.

After nine days being held in a flat, I finally voiced that I was not happy and want to leave tomorrow.  Within an hour, Sameh’s brother in law, taxi driver, sister and a niece were at our place.  I greeted them with enthusiasm, but as soon as I saw some official documents come out of the Taxi driver’s pocket my stomach sank.  I was shaking in anger and wanted to scream and run away.  Instead I just sat with my arms crossed, head down and eyes averted.  Even when spoken to with humor and kindness, I couldn’t fake it, I was on the verge of tears. There is no way that I want to marry this man I have come to know too well the last nine days.   It had come down to the Urfi marriage papers being brought to us, since Sameh hadn’t found them himself.

According to Sameh, and my research online, an Urfi marriage is like a common wealth marriage.  It is just a statement that the signed parties see themselves married before God, but not legally.  This is how people who are unmarried are able to reside together, or stay in the same hotel room (in cheaper hotels) without being officially married.  As I sat on the couch and watched the two Mohameds, take out their id cards and write their information on the documents as witnesses to our marriage I wanted to vomit.  I was just waiting for them to turn the papers to Sameh and me for our signatures. A million thoughts were running through my mind on how I would refuse to sign these papers.  Fake or not, saying the words mean something.  I have gone my whole life without getting married, and probably will not.  To me, I equate the signing of these papers and saying “I marry you, Sameh.” as giving up your religion and pledging to a new one, without believing in it.

Luckily, I did not have to make a scene in front of his family.  Sameh told them that we would sign it later.  The girls then trilled and yipped and said congratulations to us.  A minute later we were headed out the door down to the taxi, me still wearing my house shoes.  Upon walking into the street, I observed Amira yell at the taxi driver and they were arguing and taking each other’s cell phones.  This arguing continued for the whole drive to the family’s clothing store for about ten minutes.  Once we arrived and entered, the arguing escalated and I kept getting told that we were leaving and then to sit, over and over.  At one point the taxi driver took a phone and opened its back, took out the sim card, put it in his mouth and chewed it up.  He threw the broken card into the street and put the phone on the desk.  Amira was livid and tried to scuffle with him but was blocked by her sister who made Taxi Mohammed leave and brother in law Mohammed finally calmed Amira down.  After all the men left, I asked what that was all about.  It ends up that Taxi Mohamed likes Amira, and found her phone ringing in the taxi when he went down to his cab.  In ten minutes she had twenty something calls, and he did not approve of her being so popular.  I was shocked that someone who ‘liked’ someone, and wasn’t even dating, let alone her relative would take her phone and destroy the sim card.  To see everything happen and then find out what was going on retroactively was frustrating.  The diplomat in me wishes I could have calmed the situation, but not knowing the language makes it difficult, to say the least.

Later this night when returning home, Sameh and I were walking down the street and a young teenager said some words to me.  Within seconds, Sameh walked back to him and said a few words harshly and the boy’s friends all scurried over and separated the two, apologizing to Sameh.  I was ready for a fight, after hearing how Sameh has scuttled and brawled throughout the years for similar offenses.  But, luckily Sameh was no match for the eight teenage boys.  As we continued walking Sam said to me “And you really want to be alone here?!”  Once we arrived safe in the flat I asked what words were said.  The boy said as I was passing “You are walking alone? I will fuck you in your ass.”  Sam then said to him “What? You would say such a thing?  I am walking with her, she is not alone!”   The boy apologized and said, “No, of course not, I was saying that to my buddy, not to the woman.”  Sam told them “I am not a tourist, I come from Al- Wediayal and only need to make one phone call.”   Al-Wediayal happens to be known as one of the worst areas in Alex, notorious for gangster activity.  Which I cannot deny is totally accurate in his case.  Every story I hear, makes me cringe more and more, and wonder how he hid all this from me in the years we worked together.  Had I known of his past, I would not be here today.  That is for sure.

Although I may not get to visit Egypt’s historically famed spots, my insight into part of the culture will fill hundreds of pages for a future book.  This excites me, and makes it all worth it in the end.  Keep positive and just keep surviving.  This too shall pass.

Cultural Faux Pas

No matter how much research one does, you can never be prepared for everything.  Before coming to Egypt I read up on cultural customs and thought I could swing through my visit here without insulting or offending anybody.  Lol.  No such luck.

A few nights ago I was invited to dinner at Sameh’s sister’s house with her husband Mohammed and three daughters.  I absolutely fell in love with them the first time I met them earlier in the week, and had spent time with them every few days.  The girls are so fun and full of life, talented, curious and kind.  Gigi and her girls prepared a lovely meal of fish and calamari with onion rice and a pickled cucumber and tomato salad.  The fish was lightly battered and baked in the oven, whole.  This was the first time in my 36 years to eat fish prepared this way.  I was instructed to peel off the skin and place it and any other inedible parts on the table, which had been covered with a disposable plastic cover for easy cleanup.  My first bite had only one bone, but my second had about four.  Well, one went down my throat and got stuck.  So there I was at the table trying to gently cough up this fish bone, without causing a scene.  Silence.  All eyes were on me, knowing what was going on.  Mohammed handed me a piece of bread and told me to eat it.  It helped push the bone down rest of the way, leaving a tiny piece lodged in my throat.  Disaster averted!  I didn’t choke, vomit or pass out at my first family meal in Egypt.

The meal went well and we talked and laughed throughout dining with only one outburst from the youngest girl Shahd.  I asked why and what she yelled, and it was explained that they were discussing icky things like frogs, and she was disgusted and shouted “Stop! That’s gross!” I laughed that even here girls found frogs to be yucky and didn’t like to discuss such things at the dinner table.  I told her that she must take after her uncle Sameh who has a weak stomach.  Earlier in the week I was explaining different jobs I have had the last few years and the sick people I have cared for to Sameh.  He started getting sick to his stomach hearing some of the tasks I had to do, and interrupted me many times, refusing to hear any more of the disgusting things I did to care for these people.  I asked him what he thought I felt, having to live through these things, while he couldn’t even hear about them.  Lol.

Even before reaching Mohammed and Gigi’s house that night I offended people on the street.  When I first arrived to Egypt, my short red curly hair and blue eyes and bare skin around my wrists and neck brought much attention.  I adopted the shawls around the head on the second day to blend in a bit more.  Even so, people stare at me, discuss me and have even followed us. While we were walking, Sameh lit a cigarette, so I followed suit.  After a few puffs, he says to me “What are you doing?  Wearing a shawl on your head, yet smoking in the streets?  I thought you respected our culture?  Women don’t smoke in the streets.”  I replied “That’s nice!” and continued to smoke.  He turned to me and told me very firmly to put it out.  So I flicked it in front of him and we continued walking.  Once we got to the busy street I started walking on the sidewalk, while he walked in the street amongst the crazy traffic.  He asked why I didn’t walk with him, and that it is stupid to zig zag all the obstacles on the sidewalks.  I’d rather get some extra exercise and dodge people than walk in the streets of crazy traffic.  He was annoyed, and by the time we got to his sister’s we rode the elevator in silence with bad vibes between us.  He explained to them about me smoking in the street, and they were surprised that I would do such a thing.  Haha!  Nobody explained that rule to me ahead of time.  Women have much freedom in Egypt as long as it is behind closed doors!

After dinner we retired to the youngest girls’ bedroom/sitting room.  The oldest Sara and youngest Shahd had seen me many times throughout the week and were comfortable with me.  So throughout the evening they would sit next to me and show me their artwork, pictures and studies. I helped both of them with some of their English lessons as well.  Noor, the middle girl decided to entertain the family by impersonating famous singers.  She did well, singing and moving like each singer using a remote control as a microphone.  The Voice is a popular TV show here, as well as other talent shows.  At some point in the evening Sara asked me to write some things in her personal note book.  She asked me to write “I love you” in the four languages that I know.  After that she told me to write some romantic things.  I wrote six things that I thought were very tame, and okay for a fifteen year old Muslim girl.  But, once again I was wrong.  Her father took the notebook and they tried to translate it and were not happy with what I wrote and made her tear it out and throw it away.  She started crying and got slapped by her mom, which embarrassed her even more.  They told me she is just fifteen and was too young for such nonsense.  A bit later some fireworks were going on a few blocks away for a wedding.  We stepped out onto one of the balconies to take a look and Sara apologized and told me she didn’t like it when they treated her so.  I apologized and gave her a side hug and said that it will all work out in the end and that in America that it also happens.

Sameh and I went back to our flat a little after midnight and had his cousins from Cairo over for a while.  Mohammed grew up like family to Sameh, but was his neighbor from across the hall.  The doors between the two flats were always open, due to both husbands working away from home for months at a time.  This allowed the kids to pass back and forth between flats, with the mothers helping each other out.  Mohammed ended up marrying one of Sameh’s cousins who would come to stay with them for the entire summer vacation every year.  Hussein, one of Sameh’s cousins from Cairo ended up marrying the sister of Mohamed, so now Sameh’s neighbors are indeed family through marriage.  It is quite common for people to marry their cousins here in Egypt.  Sameh’s parents are first place cousins, and it is said that when this happens, you are lucky for life.  Family is everything, with God ultimately being first in their lives.

Mohamed and Hussein were good looking men in their early thirties, both married with families.  Mohamed was a bookkeeper for an oil refinery and Hussein was a police officer who guards a politician in Cairo.  I was a little nervous about meeting with these men. As they came in I saw a gun tucked in the pants of one of them, but then found out he was an officer.  We broke out the Whiskey and spent the next hour chatting and passing around the smokes and drinks.  I had read that I should offer snacks and of course make tea.  So, many times during their stay I was in and out of the room like the hostess with the mostess.  I offered some tangerines and bananas, but then decided to bring out the fancy stuff like breadsticks with dips and cheese and pickled veggies.  It had been eight hours since my first meal of the day and I needed a little more than fruit.  Our guests had some fruit, but refused the rest.  I kept eating and didn’t question them.  It is better to offer and have them refuse, rather than starve your guests, right?

Wrong!!! One does not serve such savory food to guests. Those foods are usually reserved for meals.  It is rude to eat such food in front of them also.  I should have asked if they wanted it, and if they said no, I should have excused myself, explaining that I needed to eat dinner, and do it in another room.  I guess by eating in front of people, it reminds them that you are human and have a life and needs. Lol. To be a guest and reminded that they are disrupting such things, makes them feel guilty and unwanted.  Therefore it is better for the host to starve rather than admit to being hungry. Lol.  I must state, that all this happened after the two stated that they would be sleeping in the guest beds and not driving home after drinking.  There was no way I was going to skip a meal because of that.  As it is, I am only eating twice a day here.

Sometime after 3:30 I yawned.  Two seconds later Hussein jumped to his feet and asked if Mohamed was ready to go.  What?! They were staying the night and had been drinking and smoking.  Did I seriously just offend them by yawning?  We said our goodbyes and I asked Sameh after he closed the door if my yawning caused them to go.  He said no, that earlier when I brought the food out they changed their minds about staying.  I guess it was quite rude of me to come in and out of the room so much that night, being the first time I met them.  I should not have made them tea in my flat, nor should I have fed them.  Oh, wait, yes I should have, because I was the only woman!  This is all so confusing to me.  Yawning as a host is definitely not allowed.  It makes people think they are imposing.  Once again, insulting guests with my body’s needs.  Yet hunger and yawning cannot be controlled.  Just writing about yawning makes me yawn.  Lol.  So, I ended the night with a bang, and sent our guests bolting to the door due to hunger and tiredness.  Well, all I can say is that I have no guilt for trying my best, and they should have been more understanding of our cultural differences or should have told me all the rules of hosting before doing so.

Lessons learned.  No matter how hard you try or how much you think you know, you will always let somebody down, and hopefully offend them on the way. J  Oh, wait. Not offend them…

 

Life and Death

Sometimes life can be hard.  It can be difficult for many years, and when this happens to the masses, things eventually change once they have had enough and finally stand up for themselves.  Does this sound familiar?  Are you one of the millions of people in America standing up to corruption? Becoming a part of our peoples’ revolution? Egypt had their revolution in January 2011 and ousted Hosni Mubarak who was president for three decades. Life has been very rough here in Egypt for years, jobs are scarce, and people are surviving any way that they can.  This includes cheating, scamming, hustling, stealing and even digging through the garbage heaps for scraps of food.  Knowing this, it is difficult to trust anybody.  But also being an anthropologist and humanitarian, I understand the cultural background and necessity of these ways to survive.  But it is still difficult to personally encounter, especially from someone you trust.

A flat that normally costs $100 now costs $800 for me to rent for the month.  The biggest problem with this situation, is that it is my friend and his family who are charging this to me.  Right away my defenses are put up, and I want to flee the only people I know in Egypt.  But I am already falling for them.  So the question is…. What is an authentic Egyptian Experience worth to me?  Do I suck it up and stay and get an inside look into Egyptian families, and laugh and love with them?  Or do I stand up for myself and leave Sameh and his family and get my own place and be a single western woman here in Alex.

Currently the latter is sounding more appealing because I have been holed up in the flat for days, without seeing any of the historical or tourist sites.  No matter what I choose there will be times of loneliness, but I also would like to meet different people from different parts of society.  I feel that I will only obtain this on my own.  There is definitely a class system here, and very strong opinions or prejudices against others.  If I am tied down to someone who is very low, my chances of experiencing something in a higher system is lessened.  Men stake claims on women.  I am now Sameh’s “wife”.  No one will even look at me, or even think of me beyond “sister” now that I am spoken for.  Sameh straight up told me “You are mine.  None of my friends will ever look at you.”  Ummmmm….. Wow, did he really say that?  I am my own person, and do not want to be anybody’s property.  But in the scheme of things, so far I have it easy.

A few days after my arrival the body of a four year old girl was found on the street in my neighborhood.  She had been beaten, raped and killed.  The police have been busy asking everyone questions, her identity is still not known.  It is believed that she was taken from another area and brutalized here.  This neighborhood is along the sea and therefore is packed in the summertime, but empty in comparison rest of the year.  This means there are many empty flats, alleys and areas where bad things can happen.  The police routinely check apartments to see what kind of sins are happening.  Prostitution, hash and alcohol seem to be the biggest problems.  Because of this Sameh “marries” western women that visit him here in Alex.  If the police ask, there are papers to show them that the couple are legit and not whoring around.  I am not sure if I believe that these are fake marriages.    Sam told me they are fake, but if that is so, why do the police accept them?  Or, is it more likely that it is a legal and binding marriage that now I would be trapped in?  Even the slightest chance of that makes me want to run to the hills, or to another area.

It seems that the more I resist the idea of staying or marriage, the more he pushes it.  The games begun before I even got here, and now I am playing back.  The question is, when do I call it quits. Last month a woman was killed in her apartment for her satellite dish and about $20 cash.  Sameh’s family has been discussing this, and telling me I should be careful, because people kill for very little here in Egypt.  I feel as if they are trying to make me scared and be okay with staying inside the flat and only venturing out with Sameh.  I am slowly dying inside.  Or maybe I should say the bird within is starting to flutter her wings and is ready to escape the coop.  This evening, I demanded that I get the internet and/or a phone.  It has been six days without internet and being in contact with others, except for the couple hours at the coffee shop.  Sameh has gone to his house to pick up a hotspot usb unit for my computer.  Time will tell, so far every time he was going to get it done, it hasn’t happened.

It never did happen. He made some sort of excuse every night.  After eleven days with him, I never got a phone or wifi.  He kept me cut off from the world, which led me to the disadvantage of having to trust his word, since I couldn’t research and find out my own answers.

An Exotic Creature in a Foreign Land

 

I AM BEAUTIFUL!!!! Or, so I keep on hearing from everyone I meet.  Sixteen hours after landing in Alexandria I finally was able to venture out of the apartment.  The streets were full of people and cars at 8:00 at night, animals wandering around in the trash heaps, children climbing up ladders, mothers carrying screaming babies and men sitting in Coffee shops smoking Shisha and drinking the thick sweet Turkish Coffee.

Egypt is a country that doesn’t sleep. It does quiet down in the wee hours of the morning, but people are still out on the streets, hustling and bustling.  Surprisingly, nearly half of the stores I saw were still open at 3:30 in the morning.  Cosmetics, mobile phones, convenience stores, coffee shops, juice bars, bakeries, restaurants, service stations and more were still catering to their customers.  Which is lucky for me, because I had my first Egyptian meal at four in the morning.  I was famished after sitting for hours with new friends at a Coffee Bar hydrating myself with tea, water and a hot ginger-lemon drink.

Our meal was a grilled split chicken with a salty sauté of onions, garlic and peppers on top of a bed of rice.  A few sides of pickled vegies (one tasting like tomatillo salsa) and hummus accompanied this feast.  It was Fabulous!  Sleep and eating take a back seat in this new country, the hustle and bustle of the streets makes one forget about such mundane tasks.  My mind is so curious and being fed with new knowledge in such a way that energizes me more than the typical corporal needs.   As I walk down the streets, dodging traffic, people and giant pot holes, my eyes take in my surroundings. The smells of meat and spices on the grills entice my nostrils, over powering the constant background of diesel and rotting garbage. My ears are assaulted with the sounds of honking horns, animated conversations in melodic Arabic, and pop music being blasted by different vehicles and shops.

This night we took many taxis throughout Alexandria.  My friend Sameh and I first took an empty public taxi, then after meeting more of his family at their women’s apparel shop we took a private taxi, and later a very full public taxi.  There are thousands of taxis, which I have been warned by many people not to trust, and to always agree upon the price before using.  The public taxis act as if they are mini metro busses that will stop when you call out to the driver.  People pack into these Suzuki Mini vans jumping in and out as the taxi makes its way around the city.  Private taxis tend to also be mini vans, but are also sedans.  Egyptian families each have a few private taxi drivers who they trust with their families, and will call them in order of favorites to see who is available.  So far, my assigned de facto trusted taxi drivers are Mohamed and Samei.  They both love to joke around and have intense conversations with the family I am staying with.

After finishing a fabulous four hours at the Caribou Palace (a Caribbean themed coffee bar) with Sameh, his cousin Mona and her 22 year old daughter Amira, the owner Pop Romeo drove us back to the ladies’ flat.  Pop Romeo has a bit of an obsession with Vin Diesel, because he looks so much like him.  He is a funny guy who says he sleeps about two hours a day because he is busy with his new business and a clothing shop he owns with a cousin.

I felt like royalty as soon as I walked into the outdoor coffee shop with Sameh and cousins.  He took my hand in the crook of his arm and escorted me to a table.  There were probably 40 young men, and they all had their eyes glued upon me.  The owner (who would like to find an American wife, if anyone is interested), sat with us the whole night and entertained us ladies with his quick wit and humor.  I got grilled by everyone when Sameh left to the store.  First I was asked how I knew Sameh, I told them that I was his manager in Germany at the Marshall Center Dining Hall and that we worked together for 17 months and became great friends.  They seemed very surprised by this information and asked what I thought of Sameh and if I wanted to marry him.  I explained to them that we are good friends, he is attractive and I care about him, but do not want to marry.

I then described myself as an Independent Woman who could not be tied down to a man, and that I have enjoyed life this far without a husband and children.  Upon Sameh’s return he was bombarded by questions and they told him what I said when asked about marrying him.  I found out that everyone assumed that Sameh and I were only Facebook Friends who had never met in real life.  So, the fact that they fell for me instantly and all really liked me was amplified that much more once they found out that we have been friends for years.  Amira was amazed by my accomplishments, talents, brains and sense of adventure.  She kept suggesting that we become business partners, and many times through the night would suggest different business ventures I could try with various members of the family.

After a couple hours sitting outside and shivering from the cool Mediterranean breeze we moved indoors.  I happened to make an interesting observation as all the men took their turns looking at us three women and especially me.  The bathroom was about fifteen feet from our table, and the door was open.  I could see directly inside all the way to the urinal.  At one point I became conscience of this fact and was surprised by this.  I don’t know what to think of the fact that they all peed in front of us, or if that is normal.  I am no prude, and could care less, but culturally with the stricter modesty codes, I was surprised.

After parting from my new friends, Sameh and I took a crowded public taxi back home.  He made sure to tell me not to touch the man sitting next to me.  I will tell you that being crammed in like Sardines makes it difficult not to touch the person next to you.  But I did it by gripping on to Sameh for support while going fast around some corners.  Trying to keep a lower profile here in Alexandria, we speak German together about 90% of the time in public.  Every time one of the passengers got out of the van they would give me a good looking at.  The two times I had to get out of the van I got looked up and down numerous times and the guys all asked Sameh where they can find such a beautiful wife like me.  His response was that they would have to wait twenty years till our daughters could marry!

Yeah, you read that right.  This is the part that I like to call foreshadowing…  My next piece will tell you all about this proposal of marriage that I have received.  The thing is, that tomorrow I could probably have a hundred more proposals from strangers.  Egypt is a land of opportunity for a woman like me.  I am an exotic creature in a foreign land. I draw the eyes of everyone I pass, being called beautiful dozens of times. A girl can get used to that. Lol.